By Vic Holtreman
Short version: In 3D Beowulf is an incredible visual experience that you must see... but leave the kids at home.
I need to make a few things clear before I begin my review:
1. I have not read the source material in any form, be it the classic poem or any graphic novelization of it.
2. Folks, please ignore the PG-13 rating given to this film. This is an R-rated movie!! How in the hell it was given a PG-13 boggles my mind.
3. This is a review of the IMAX 3D version of the film, not the standard projection version and the review will reflect that experience.
The plot of Beowulf is pretty straightforward on the face of it: Monster torments the local kingdom periodically, the King finally says enough is enough, a hero and his hearty band of men show up to defeat the monster, monster defeated... but not really.
You've probably read about it (lots of articles about it here on this site) and between all the weirdness of the publicity campaign (restricted trailers for a supposedly PG-13 film) and the talk about how real (or fake) the CGI characters look you may be wondering if it's worth watching.
I'm here to tell you: Hell yes, it is.
As the film opens you are hit with the 3D effect right off the bat with the production company and studio logos floating and spinning before you. From there we go to a panoramic scene of the countryside and a town and we fly towards it. So far the 3D effect is extremely cool and this gives the viewer a chance to start adjusting to it before the actual story begins.
We eventually enter a building where the townsfolk gather for celebrations and this is where we meet King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), his vastly younger queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) and the King's right hand man Unferth (John Malkovich). The King is drunk and barely dressed in what seems to be no more than a sheet, and he is celebrating the construction of this new gathering place as his wife looks on in disgust at his old, overweight and drunken self. The celebration is quite loud, and we witness a very far ranging pullaway shot leaving the town and heading out into the mountains. Eventually we arrive at the cave where the monster Grendel (acted by Crispin Glover) lives. Grendel has incredibly sensitive hearing and unfortunately for him the acoustics of the cave amplify the sound of the celebration to an ear-splitting level.
Grendel is a sad and hideously misshapen creature who lives off of livestock he's killed. He does have a taste for humans but his mother Angelina Jolie tries to keep his eating of humans to a minimum. However at this point the noise is too much for Grendel and he heads into town and murders almost everyone in the area in a very long and gruesome scene. For some reason he does not kill the King, seeming almost enamored of him although the King wants him to fight.
After this rampage the King sends out the word that they need a hero to come kill the monster, and we meet Beowulf and his boys sailing what looks like a Viking ship on stormy seas. They arrive and it turns out the Beowulf and the King have known each other for a long time. Winstone plays Beowulf with all the power of King Leonidas in 300, but with an overly proud streak. He is fond of boasting (and embellishing on) stories of his adventures, including explaining why he lost a swimming race in rough seas against another man.
I don't want to spoil too much but of course you know he ends up fighting Grendel. Beowulf comes up with the bizarre manly logic that since the monster is unarmed, he must fight it completely unarmed as well. Now when I say completely unarmed I mean it.
He fights the monster butt-naked.
Now I understand the desire to stay faithful to the original poem, but I have to say I found this distracting to say the least. Half the time I was paying more attention to the creative methods they used to block the view of his crotch in this scene. Yes, I understand the point: It was man vs monster in it's purest forum, but I mean back then they wrestled naked in the Olympics, so I guess it was kind of the thing to do. The guy could have at least worn some sort of manly skirt or something.
Eventually Beowulf meets Grendel's shapeshifting mother who makes a bargain with him that will supposedly make him a king forever. Of course we know what happens when you make deals with demons.
I have a short list of things that I didn't like in this movie... I've already mentioned the naked guy fights a monster scene. The other thing that really bothered me is that this is being advertised as a PG-13 film. For a film that is at this rating there is a lot of sexual talk and a couple of scenes of one of Beowulf's men determined to bed a very large breasted woman through not so subtle comments. There is also a ton of intense and gruesome violence. Seriously gruesome, folks. Just because it's CGI doesn't make it "OK," especially when it's supposed to be photorealistic.
Don't get me wrong... I think the violence belonged in this movie. As a matter of fact I would have preferred that they hadn't tried to get a PG-13 and instead just went for the R-rating and upped the intensity.
Speaking of CGI, I've read some reviewers comments saying the it looked like a video game and that the eyes of the characters still have that "dead" look characteristic of CGI-created people. To that I reply: Are you nuts?
Certainly not throughout the entire film and with every character, but there were moments when I was watching closeups of Ray Winstone or Anthony Hopkins and thought "Damn, we are 99.9% there." The weakness was in most of the female characters: Robin Wright Penn looked like a living Barbie doll, and the village women seemed fairly artificial. But the lead male characters? Holy cow... freaking incredible. I don't know what exactly changed since Robert Zemeckis' last CGI motion capture film The Polar Express, but the difference is night and day. That film's characters had a creepy living mannequin vibe to them that was completely missing from most of the characters in this film, both animal and human.
Angelina Jolie looked incredible, like a magazine cover airbrushed version of herself. Yes, she was essentially naked (again, PG-13?) in more than one scene. What was as amazing was the way they captured her face while she spoke. To me she looked as alive as I've seen her in any movie. In the performances of Winstone, Hopkins and Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf) you could see the nuances of their performances, captured by the most subtle of facial movements and expressions that you only register subconsciously when talking to someone.
And the dragon? Coolest damn dragon I've ever seen on film.
Overall it was an amazing experience and surprisingly the 3D effects I liked least were of the "in your face" variety: A spear poking out of the screen towards the audience and that sort of thing. What made the experience rich was when it was subtle and it brought you almost literally into the movie. If you're going to see this movie, make sure you see it in 3D digital at the very least. If you can make it an IMAX theater that's a bonus. Beowulf is the movie that cracks the 3D barrier folks.
The future of the movie theater experience is 3D and it's here.